The progress of the aerospace industry has a profound impact on living standards and national defense capabilities. Consequently, the promotion of innovation and advancement in this field garners attention from various sectors. UnionTech, as an outstanding company, upholds social responsibility and patriotism, utilizing its 3D printing technology to contribute to the aerospace industry. By harnessing technology, UnionTech aims to propel societal and national development.
How is 3D printing technology employed in the aerospace sector?
The utilization of 3D printing technology in the aerospace field offers numerous benefits, including the reduction of research and development cycles for new aerospace equipment, enhanced material utilization, lowered manufacturing costs, and the ability to repair and shape parts, leading to an extended service life.
Aerospace manufacturing integrates a nation's cutting-edge technologies and serves as a crucial backup sector for implementing national strategic plans and showcasing political influence. Within this context, metal 3D printing technology stands out with its significant application advantages and service benefits in the aerospace industry. These advantages are primarily observed in the following areas:
3D Printing Aircraft Engine
3D Printing Aerospace Aircraft Engine
Shortened research and development cycles for new aerospace equipment:
Aerospace technology symbolizes national defense capabilities and political prowess, and global competition among nations in this realm is fierce. Consequently, countries strive to develop new weapons and equipment at an accelerated pace to ensure superiority in national defense. Metal 3D printing technology greatly reduces the manufacturing process for high-performance metal parts, particularly large structural components. By eliminating the need for molds traditionally used in part manufacturing, the technology significantly shortens the product development and manufacturing cycle.
Professor Li Daguang, an expert in the Department of Military Logistics and Military Science and Technology Equipment at the National Defense University, stated that in the past, it took 10-20 years to develop a new generation of fighter jets. However, with 3D printing technology and other information technologies, a new fighter jet can now be developed in as little as three years. The technology's high flexibility, performance, and capacity for rapid prototyping of complex parts, combined with its ability to manufacture large-scale structural components, provide robust technical support for defense equipment production.
An exemplary application of metal 3D printing technology in the aviation field is the central flange component of China's large aircraft, the C919. This structural part, measuring over 3 meters in length, is the world's longest aerospace structural component produced through metal 3D printing. Employing traditional manufacturing methods would require forging the part using a large-tonnage press, an arduous and time-consuming process that also results in material waste. Due to the lack of equipment capable of producing such large-scale structural parts in China, the country previously had to order them from abroad, leading to a life cycle from ordering to installation exceeding two years. This prolonged process hindered aircraft research and development progress. However, by utilizing metal 3D printing technology, the central flange strip was developed within approximately one month. The printed part exhibited structural strength that met or even exceeded forging standards, fully complying with aviation standards. The application of metal 3D printing technology significantly expedited the development of large aircraft in China, facilitating smooth progress. This case exemplifies the positive impact of metal 3D printing technology in the aerospace field.
Improved material utilization, cost reduction, and conservation of expensive strategic materials:
Aerospace manufacturing predominantly employs expensive strategic materials, such as titanium alloys and nickel-based superalloys. Traditional manufacturing methods exhibit low material utilization rates, often not exceeding 10% and sometimes as low as 2%-5%. This inefficiency results in significant material waste, complicated machining procedures, prolonged production timeframes, and increased manufacturing costs.
Metal 3D printing technology, as a near-net-shaping technique, requires minimal follow-up processing and achieves material utilization rates of 60% or even over 90%. This not only reduces manufacturing costs and conserves raw materials but also aligns with the country's sustainable development strategy.
Professor Huaming Wang from Beihang University mentioned during a symposium held by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2014 that China can now produce the glass window frame of the C919 aircraft cockpit within 55 days using 3D printing technology. In contrast, a European aircraft manufacturing company estimated a production time of at least two years, accompanied by a mold cost of two million US dollars alone. The implementation of 3D printing technology in China shortened production cycles, improved efficiency, saved raw materials, and significantly reduced production costs.
Optimized part structures, weight reduction, stress concentration reduction, and increased service life:
Weight reduction is a perpetual goal in aerospace weapons and equipment development. It enhances flight equipment flexibility, increases payload capacity, saves fuel, and reduces flight costs. However, traditional manufacturing methods have already maximized weight reduction for parts, making further improvements impractical.
3D printing technology enables the optimization of complex part structures. While maintaining performance requirements, complex structures can be simplified, resulting in weight reduction. Furthermore, structural optimization ensures the most rational distribution of stress in parts, reducing the risk of fatigue cracks and thereby extending the service life. The technology allows for temperature control through the design of intricate internal runner structures, optimized material selection, and the freedom to create complex parts to meet usage standards.
A notable example involves the landing gear of a fighter plane, a critical part subject to high loads and impacts, requiring high strength and impact resistance. The landing gear manufactured using 3D technology on the American F16 fighter plane not only meets usage standards but also boasts an average lifespan 2.5 times longer than that of the original gear.
Part repair and forming:
Besides manufacturing and production, the value of metal 3D printing technology in repairing high-performance metal parts surpasses its use in manufacturing. Metal 3D printing technology exhibits even greater potential for repair applications than for manufacturing itself.
For instance, consider the repair of high-performance integral turbine blisk parts. When a blade on the disk becomes damaged, the entire turbine blisk would traditionally be discarded, resulting in economic losses exceeding one million units of currency. However, leveraging the layer-by-layer manufacturing capability of 3D printing, the damaged blade can be treated as a specific substrate. By performing laser three-dimensional forming on the damaged area, the part can be restored to its original shape while exceeding the performance requirements, surpassing the properties of the base material. The controllability of the 3D printing process ensures limited negative impacts during repair.
Repairing 3D printed parts is generally more straightforward and offers better compatibility compared to other manufacturing technologies. In the repair process of conventional manufacturing techniques, maintaining tissue, composition, and performance consistency between the repair area and substrate is challenging due to variations in manufacturing processes and repair parameters. However, this problem does not arise when repairing 3D printed parts. The repair process can be viewed as an extension of the additive manufacturing process, enabling optimal alignment between the repair area and substrate. This establishes a virtuous cycle in the part manufacturing process: low-cost manufacturing + low-cost repair = high economic benefit.
Synergy with traditional manufacturing technology:
Traditional manufacturing technology excels in producing large-volume shaped products, while 3D printing technology is more suitable for manufacturing personalized or refined structural components. By combining both technologies, their respective strengths can be harnessed, resulting in a more potent manufacturing process.
For instance, when parts require high surface quality but average performance in the center, traditional manufacturing techniques can be employed to produce the central-shaped parts. Subsequently, laser stereolithography technology can be used to directly fabricate surface parts on these central components, achieving high surface performance while maintaining general requirements for the center. This approach simplifies the process, reduces the number of steps, and saves production time. Such a complementary production combination holds significant practical value in part production and manufacturing.
Moreover, for components with simple external structures but complex internal structures, utilizing traditional manufacturing technology for the internal complex structures leads to cumbersome processes and complicated post-processing steps, resulting in increased production costs and extended timelines. By employing traditional manufacturing technology for the external structure and 3D printing technology for the internal structure, near-net shaping is achieved, requiring only minimal follow-up processes to complete the product manufacturing. This approach reduces the production cycle, cuts costs, and realizes seamless integration between traditional and new manufacturing technologies, enabling effective communication and complementarity.
While aerospace remains the primary application field for 3D printing technology, it is crucial to acknowledge that metal 3D printing has limitations and numerous challenges in its technical application. For instance, 3D printing is currently unsuitable for mass production, high-precision requirements, and high-efficiency manufacturing. The high equipment costs associated with 3D printing also hinder its widespread adoption in civilian fields. However, continuous developments in material technology, computer technology, and laser technology are expected to reduce manufacturing costs, making 3D printing more economically viable for the manufacturing industry. As these advancements occur, 3D printing will continue to illuminate the manufacturing field.